Cuphead has inspired me to reflect on my personal history with this wonderful genre. We’ll be covering heavyhitters like Contra, Gunstar Heroes, Metal Slug, as well as some more obscure entries. Introducing the classic sidescrolling run ‘n’ gun:
I grew up in the 32-bit era with only limited exposure to the 16- and 8-bit systems. As a result my first encounters with traditional run ‘n’ gun games were via the Wii’s Virtual Console. Here, I played two of the most iconic run ‘n’ guns ever made – Contra III and Gunstar Heroes. Let’s kick off this trip down memory lane with a by now classic debate, a mainstay of 16-bit console warring. Contra III vs Gunstar Heroes: which is better?
I have to admit this is an easy decision for me but let’s entertain both options here, starting with…
Contra III: The Alien Wars, aka Super Probotector (SNES)
Contra III did for Contra what Super Castlevania IV did for Castlevania – successfully brought the series into the 16-bit era with fancy graphics and sound, whilst retaining the core gameplay that made the NES originals so beloved. Contra III was exclusive to the SNES, even though it has a very arcade-like design philosophy. Your character dies from a single hit (assuming that’s a bullet from an enemy, I suppose that is realistic at least) and your lives/continues are strictly limited.
Like Cuphead so many years later, the difficulty is adjustable but the final level and ending are gated behind higher difficulties. (I must admit I have only ever beaten Contra III on Easy, and even then by cheating!) Two player co-op is present here, but with a shared pool of continues both partners have to pull their own weight! I was never able to make it work for that reason, too frustrating.
With the recent release of the Contra Collection on Switch I have only just learned that the international releases of Contra III have the difficulty dialled up from the Japanese original, to counter the game rental market. (For those who don’t know, game rentals were and still are illegal in Japan… go figure.) It was a dick move by Konami back in the day, but it does mean on Switch we will finally all have a chance to experience the game as intended in this respect.
In terms of the game itself, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. It’s simultaneously a moody, atmospheric game, whilst also kicking ass. I don’t think it’s just because I played Super Probotector with its robot protagonists, but Terminator 2 is an easy comparison, along with the ubiquitous Aliens. We’ve got a dissonant soundtrack, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the ability to clear the screen with an atomic bomb pickup(!), killer robots and biological monstrosities for adversaries.
Gameplay-wise, my favourite aspect of the game is the athletics. I love climbing and hanging everywhere. The start of level three when you get the flamethrower, the confrontation with the shameless Terminator rip-off exoskeleton, the missile flight… cinematic set-pieces alike with tight controls.
Limited continues aside, the weakest parts of Contra III for me, no question, are the awkward overhead levels. Unusually for a Konami game, controls and feel are an issue here – your guys have tank controls and you control the camera. It’s not the typical Smash TV setup, and I wish they had gone down a more conventional path. The bigger problem is that these levels just aren’t that fun to play. They’re exploratory challenges – destroy four enemy nests – followed by a (better) boss fight. Mercifully there are only two levels like this, and they are quick to blow through but they’re a chore nonetheless and it’s annoying if you lose lives here given your limited pool. I haven’t spent much time with the NES Contra games but the special stages seem better, simply by being more straightforward and not testing your navigation skills!
A very good, albeit flawed game is my final assessment.
Gunstar Heroes (Megadrive)
Now if you’ve read my Cuphead post you’ll know I’m extremely partial to Gunstar Heroes. Yes, I love it. I will try not to go on about it too much here (again!). Thank goodness Treasure opted to give us unlimited continues in the international release over Contra III’s credits system.
You also don’t die in one hit here, but have a health meter (or number in this case). The pressure is off with Gunstar Heroes – I no longer have to do a great run of the game from start to finish. It alters the dynamic of the game to let’s make it to the next checkpoint rather than let’s avoid screwing up here otherwise I have to restart the entire game. (There’s a reason I’ve beaten Gunstar Heroes on the highest difficulty but haven’t beaten Contra III on Normal.)
Not that Gunstar Heroes is simple or straightforward, far from it – there really isn’t anything else quite like it that I know of. (Even Cuphead, which asks you to make strategic weapon choices, doesn’t compete in the number of options.) There are always multiple ways of tackling challenges thanks to a wide range of offensive moves.
Forget guns for a minute – why not get up close and personal and throw your enemies? You can also do a floor dash (short or long), an upward kick, a mid-air body blow, and possibly even more I’m forgetting about. The guns are varied too thanks to a unique weapon mixing system. You can hold two weapons like Contra III, plus a third weapon that combines the properties of the other two.
The variety of offensive moves are complemented by the variety of situations the game places you in. Crazy bosses and crazy stages are a recipe for success. Like Contra III, Gunstar Heroes has a flair for the dramatic: skiing down a pyramid, an on-rails space shooter section, minecarting on the ceiling, fighting on a biplane’s wings. All with a goofy Power Rangers, Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic. Yep, I like Gunstar Heroes alright. This was the game that solidified my love of this genre.
1000 words later and it’s time to move on from these 16-bit juggernauts. Next time: Gunstar Heroes’ spiritual successor, Alien Soldier for Megadrive/Genesis and the Metal Slug series for the NeoGeo. Peace out, and remember, never stop running!